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New rules strengthen watch on food source

By Associated Press
Published December 12, 2003

REYNOSA, Mexico - Indian pigeon peas, Mexican cilantro, Turkish laurel leaves - any food headed for the American market - will be more closely examined as of today under new rules to thwart bioterrorists.

Under the Bioterrorism Act, the U.S. government requires 400,000 food handling companies - at home and abroad - to register all products with the Food and Drug Administration.

While the new regulations affect both imported and domestic food, foreign exporters fear they will be hit the hardest. Many say it could drive them out of the U.S. market, although some hope the new law will expedite trade.

The law requires those exporting food to the United States to give American inspectors advance notice before shipments arrive - two hours for those crossing the border by truck, four hours for those on planes or trains, and eight if landing by ship.

Although there has not been a terrorist attack on the U.S. food supply, Americans have been hit by an anthrax scare and FDA officials believe green onions from Mexico infected hundreds of U.S. residents with hepatitis.

The FDA said that as of Wednesday, two days before the new regulations were put in place, nearly 131,000 food handling companies had registered - about 68,000 of which were outside of the United States.

Mexican customs broker Janet Martinez said many of her clients are not even aware of the new law. She doubts they will register, let alone meet the new requirements.

"In Mexico, there are places where there isn't even a phone," Martinez said. "A lot of our clients are small producers and they are not at the level to comply with what the FDA is asking. They are going to be hit the hardest."

FDA spokesman Michael Herndon said the rules were created to protect against a possible bioterrorism attack. He said firms will have at least four months to get acquainted with the new law and comply with the regulations.

The FDA and U.S. Customs have agreed to share information so that companies won't have to submit details about incoming shipments twice. Customs already requires companies to register imported products, but the FDA registration involves a much more detailed questionnaire.

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